John Wilson talks about funerals


John Wilson interviewed by Julia Muir Watt in Whithorm, July 2012.

John recalls how funeral services used to be in the 1950s and how the role of the rural joiner used to encompass that of funeral director.

  • Interviewed: 2 July 2012.
  • Ref: DG4/9/1/2.
  • Photo: Julia Muir Watt.
  • © European Ethnological Research Centre.


JMW: So did a lot of the coffins start, as it were, that you would leave them in the house for the family and then go from there? Because that’s changed as well.

JW: Yes, the funerals were mainly from the house in these days, at that time, yeah. That began to change, ah would say aboot, in the sixties, the early sixties. And it got, it was more convenient because… Especially in Whithorn, if we had a funeral, say, at the Top of the Town where the streets narrow, people would – the funerals were always well attended, as you know round about here they are always well attended – and what would happen at the Top o the Town, they would stand around the door-way [MJW: Right.] and the Minister, we would get the Minister to stand at the door-way so the people, the relatives could hear but also the people outside could hear what was being said. And, eh, inevitably there would be a big lorry would come roaring up through the town and drowned-out. So it wasn’t very handy. And especially in the winter-time as well with the bad weather. And then we began then to have more and more in the church. And now, it’s just the norm, they’re all in the church. Eh, but, no originally, it was, they were all from the house.

JMW: And did your father have the responsibility of preparing the bodies before putting them in the coffins?

JW: We, most times we did that, yeah. We did that ourselves. There was a lady in town here – if it was a Whithorn funeral – there was lady in town who was nicknamed ‘The Angel of Death’ [laughter]. Eh, she would prepare them. But most times it was us – we did it ourselves and people were quite happy just to let us get on with it.

JW: In the [19]50s even death was looked-on differently. Because ah can remember when ah came into Whithorn in 1964 [from Galsserton] and the local taxi driver would go up and pick-up coffins for some of the undertaker from the Isle of Whithorn and ah mean it was, you never thought anything about it. He had an Austin Cambridge taxi. And the boot on the Austin Cambridge folded-down from the back, right? It came doon like a lid. And he would just set it off on this boot-lid and tie it on and off he would set. So ye’d see, you would see this car goin up the town with a coffin wrapped, it was all wrapped-up in hessian. An it was just another commodity really. That has all changed now [JMW: Yes.]. Ye know, but that was the way it was done. But ye see the thing was as well, every community where there was a joiner would have an undertaker [JMW: Yes.]. There was an undertaker, the old joiner in Port William was an undertaker; the joiner in the Isle of Whithorn was an undertaker; the joiner in Whithorn was an undertaker. So, and it was simply because, this tradition of making the coffins [JMW: Yes, yes.].

JMW: So presumably in your father’s day, he did make the coffin? Or your grandfather’s day.

JW: Yes. Oh yes, yes, they did, they did, aye. Ma father did. But the time, by the time that ah came on the scene that, it had changed and the coffins were, eh we got them from Jardine’s [funeral directors]in Dumfries.